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Generation Z

Breaking above the noise: How to turn Gen Z into an asset for your organization

Growing up in a world surrounded by organizations vying for our attention, many organizations and nonprofits seem to blend together for Gen Z. How can your organization break through all the noise and turn Gen Z into an asset for your cause?

‍Gen Z is a very socially conscious generation. As a group, we truly have an aspiration to change the world. And we are also one of the busiest generations in history. That combination has led to a level of competition between non-profit organizations, especially those targeting youth, like never before.

Understand We Have Other Obligations

As referenced, Gen Z is likely the most preoccupied group of kids the world has seen. We have sports practices, jobs, rehearsals, volunteering, etc., but only after we spend a few hours on homework each night. Because of this, successful organizations find a way to fit into our hectic lives and in a way we appreciate.

Understand What Drives Us

Gen Z is driven by competition. This is why organizations that roll out contests and prizes will generally have higher Gen Z engagement levels. For example, Junior Achievement is an organization that has taken advantage of this trait by hosting entrepreneurial start-up contests and giving meaningful (keyword: meaningful) awards to those who have excelled in their respective contests.

Another great example of this is the YMCA’s Youth in Government program, which gives youth an opportunity to participate in a government simulator.

Understand Our Motives and How Your Organization Can Satisfy Our Needs

Another reason that some organizations are not successful in engaging Gen Z is because they fail to understand our motives for participating. For example, many people who participate in YMCA’s Youth in Government do so because it looks good on a college application. Others do it to make friends or because they truly are interested in politics. Whatever the reason, understanding the Gen Z needs and making necessary adjustments will be richly rewarded with our engagement.

Connect Yourself to the Bigger Picture

Unless Gen Zers see a real purpose to an organization, they will not willingly engage. Now more than ever, organizations need to shift their focus to less theoretical and more practical. For example, Junior Achievement empowers its youth to launch real businesses.

Gina Blayney, CEO of Junior Achievement of the Upper Midwest, “It’s fun and exciting for us at Junior Achievement to work with Generation Z; these young people embrace all cultures and backgrounds and they are excited to learn and make a difference in the world.”

This model works because their participants feel like they have skin in the game and that their work matters. On the other hand, DECA, another business club, is much more theoretical. This could harm student engagement, while it develops business skills, there doesn’t seem to be a real-world purpose or impact.

Offer Something Unique

Gen Z is surrounded by so many options and opportunities to choose from. This forces organizations that want to survive to create experiences that are unique and meaningful. For example, WE Day is an event like none other that brings thousands of Gen Zers together for a day of motivation and inspiration. It is unique and it is something young people all over the world want to be affiliated with.

“Give Gen Z a problem to solve, engage them in learning and invest in opportunities where they can apply their skills to discover their talents. They are savvy consumers of technology, but we know they also want to engage with people on a personal level,” said Blayney.

Evolution of Organizations

We are witnessing the evolution of organizations as we know it. The entire nonprofit world is undergoing a natural selection of sorts, and only the organizations with strong values that are truly making an impact will survive. Make sure your organization is on the right side of that line.

Download our white paper on Generation Z, Ready or Not, Here Comes Z, for key findings from our global survey, further analysis on what shaped this generation, and the six characteristics that define their different strengths, values, and attitudes.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Josh Miller

Josh Miller is a passionate and informed advocate for his generation—Gen Z. He started speaking on national stages at the age of 13. Now, at the age of 16, he’s an award-winning entrepreneur and thought-leader who has met and been mentored by several notable business leaders. Miller brings considerable research and insight to his presentations, drawing on his experiences as both a high school student and a young consultant to Fortune 500 companies. His presentations resonate with audiences that want to learn how to engage today’s students and young professionals, and glean valuable insights into future workforce trends.

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